Tag Archives: Soviet Union

The world according to Gary Shteyngart in four languages

Photo: Random House/Brigitte Lacombe

Photo: Random House/Brigitte Lacombe

Gary Shteyngart writes in English, but his memoir draws on the Russian and Yiddish of his Leningrad childhood, and the Hebrew of his schooling in New York.

The memoir is called “Little Failure.” The title is based on an English-Russian mashup expression (“failure” plus a Russian diminutive) invented by his mother.

“I love the way [my parents] play with language,” says Shteyngart. “Even when it’s a little bit hurtful.”

Hurtful goes both ways in Shteyngart’s family. “Little Failure” won’t be a comfortable read for his parents. It’s full of fraught family moments—and worse. The memoir also delves into the past, documenting the terrible suffering of some Shteyngart’s grandparents and great-grandparents.

And although his parents do have a copy of the book, Shteyngart says their English isn’t great, so they may wait till the Russian translation comes out.

Shteyngart has previously written three novels, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” “Absurdistan” and “Super Sad True Love Story.” The memoir reads like a novel—gripping narratives, expertly-etched characters, telling details.

When Shteyngart was seven, his family moved from the Soviet Union to the United States. Like many Soviet Jews they’d been trying to leave for years to escape anti-Semitism. But Soviet authorities blocked the immigration of many Jews until they could strike a deal with the United States. It was 1979. The Russians needed grain—their harvest had failed. So they allowed Jews to leave in exchange for American grain.

So the family became “Grain Jews.”

“I was worth maybe 300 loaves and a croissant or something,” says Shteyngart. “I don’t know who got the better deal.”

The family settled in New York, where Gary was sent to Hebrew school. He didn’t bother too much with learning Hebrew. He was more interested in picking up English from TV shows like “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

At the dinner table, though, the family spoke only in Russian, for which Shteyngart is grateful now.

“Retaining Russian meant retaining all those memories,” he says. “Whenever I write, it’s in English but there’s always a Russian soundtrack in the back.”

It took Shteyngart about seven years to lose his Russian accent: “Lots of practice in front of a mirror.”

He would repeat words he couldn’t pronounce, trying to “get rid of a bunch of consonants to get English right.”

One such word: attic. The family had moved to an apartment with an attic and Shteyngart was anxious to master this expression. But one of those pesky extra consonants came back to bite him. He pronounced it addict, as in: “We have a new apartment with an addict.”

Shteyngart recently became a father for the first time. He’s relieved that his son wasn’t born into the kind of calamitous world experienced by previous generations of Shteyngarts.

“The Yiddish word is tsuris—troubles,” he says. “I don’t know what the future is going to hold. I mean pretty soon, Manhattan might be underwater, so I hope this kid learns how to swim real good. But there is a feeling that…he’s growing up in relatively wonderful circumstances.”

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    Cold War Linguists: The NSA’s Spies of Teufelsberg

    The old US listening station at Teufelsberg, Berlin (Photo: Axel Mauruszat via Wikimedia Commons)

    The old US listening station at Teufelsberg, Berlin (Photo: Axel Mauruszat via Wikimedia Commons)

    Here’s a guest post from the Big Show’s Clark Boyd

    Berlin makes for an interesting backdrop for President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss recent revelations about NSA surveillance. It was there, during the Cold War, that the United States and the Soviet Union focused much of their espionage activity.

    After World War Berlin lay in ruins, its buildings reduced to rubble. The Russians used tons of that rubble, including parts of Hitler’s chancellery, to build a giant war memorial in what would become Soviet East Berlin.

    The Americans created a hill out of their rubble. The artificial hill, built on top of a never-completed Nazi military-technical college, was dubbed Teufelsberg, German for “Devil’s Mountain.” At 260 feet, it was hardly a mountain. But it was tall enough for the NSA to point antennas hundreds of miles into East Germany.

    Edward Richardson, now a lawyer, served in the 1960s with the 78th Army Security Agency Special Operations Unit (ASA) at Teufelsberg. Richardson, who was already a member of the National Guard, enlisted in Army and opted for Russian language training.

    He was assigned to West Berlin in 1965—to the listening station at Teufelsberg.

    There, hidden under giant, slightly menacing-looking domes, the antennas picked up all kinds of radio traffic from the East. And 24/7, the Americans used dozens of vacuum tube radios and reel-to-reel tape recorders to monitor it all.

    “This was kind of the Pleistocene Era of communications,” says Richardson. “The operators would sit there all night, and just wait for one of lines on the green screen to squiggle, and they’d start the tape recorder. Then they’d hand the tapes over to a transcriber, and then it went on to NSA or ASA headquarters.”

    Richardson was tasked with focusing on Soviet troop movements in East Germany.

    “We didn’t care what they were saying,” he says. “What we cared about was who was saying it, and where they were saying it from. Nobody was interested in listening to people’s conversations.”

    That sounds like an early version of the “We’re only looking at your meta-data” line of jokes, directed these days at President Obama’s NSA.

    Richardson remembers some funny moments, like near daybreak, when weird frequency bounces meant you’d sometimes hear Moscow cabbies chatting. Or when you’d decode a message saying that a Soviet artillery unit was targeting Teufelsberg—only to realize that it was a hoax.

    While Richardson worked on the Soviets, Don Cooper listened in on telephone calls between East German government officials.

    Teufelsberg veteran and author Donald Cooper

    Teufelsberg veteran and author Donald Cooper

    “Some days it was fun. Other days it was excruciatingly boring,” says Cooper. “They’d be discussing agriculture reports, things like that. They were having a bad crop of potatoes. And if you were on the graveyard shift, or really just after 8 o’clock at night, we just switched over to Radio Luxembourg and listened to rock ‘n’ roll.”

    But Cooper says he does remember hearing one interesting conversation. Walter Ulbricht—“Uncle Walter” as he was called—was the East German leader at the time. Cooper once overheard Uncle Walter’s then second-in-command, Erich Honecker, arranging a hunting trip.

    “Walter wanted to go deer hunting up in the northern part of the country,” says Cooper. “They were making sure he’d get a deer. They drugged the poor thing, and when it staggered out, Walter would take a shot at the thing, and they had a sharpshooter with a silencer on his rifle to make sure the deer went down. So, Walter got his deer.”

    And the Americans got a bit of insight into how East Germany worked at the time.

    Cooper details this in his book “C-Trick“—named after the shift he worked. He says that officially, the Army Security Agency was never in Berlin. The guys in the outfit couldn’t even wear their unit patch on their uniforms. If a German asked, Cooper says you had to tell them: “I’m a clerk in the Berlin brigade.”

    He remembers trying that out one night at a place called The White House Whitehorse Bar.

    “I was sitting in there enjoying myself, and a couple of Germans, sitting with a couple of Berliners, and they asked: ‘Are you American?’ With the military haircut I had at the time, I said: ‘Yeah, I’m a clerk with the Berlin brigade.’ They laughed and said, ‘Oh, you’re ASA.’”

    So much for top secret.

    There was, of course, plenty of spy-versus-spy goings on in those post-war decades.

    The Soviets had built their own listening station on a hill in East Berlin. Christopher McLarren served with the ASA at Teufelsberg in the 1970s.

    “As long as they listened to the West, and we listened to the East, things went fine. Because after 1980, the real big danger was surprise, panic and military over-reaction,” says McLarren. “Since we were all listening, [there was ] no surprise, no panic, no over-reaction. So it worked very well.”

    McLarren ended up marrying a Berliner, and staying on in the city after he left the Army. He watched as the fall of the wall and reunification brought an end to the NSA’s listening station on Teufelsberg.

    “Reunification was 1990. From what I understand, the Americans listened in—just to make sure, for another year, just to make sure everything was straight. And then they dismantled the place, so I think operations finished in 1991 or 1992.”

    And Teufelsberg itself—the buildings with the strangely shaped domes? It’s fallen into almost complete disrepair.

    Artists and musicians love to visit the eery place for inspiration.

    Many development ideas have been floated for the site—a hotel, luxury apartments, a spa—but none of them has worked out. The locals aren’t too keen on any of these plans.

    Christopher McLarren is part of a group called BerlinSightOut that gives organized tours of the now derelict and dangerous buildings. At a minimum, he says, he’d like to see a small museum built to highlight the history of the place. He says that while Berliners are typically keen to forget the past and move on, they do pause to consider Teufelsberg’s history. Eighty percent of his tour-goers are Berliners.

    “It’s very much ‘in’ at this point,” he says. “I always think, when you go through the place—since I knew what it was like before—is in terrible condition, an absolute ruin. But for the people who were never there before, this is all fascinating stuff.”

    And no, McLarren says, there hasn’t been an uptick in tour requests since the recent revelations about the N-S-A’s massive data snooping program.

    Instead, he says, it’s just a steady stream of people, coming every weekend despite the notoriously bad Berlin weather, to look out over a now-unified city, and country.



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    The butcher, the baker, and the cabbage gelder

    As far as tedium goes, nothing competes with filling out a government form.  How best to relieve the tedium? Invent stuff. Not out-and-out lie, just get a bit creative  (OK, sometimes out-an-out lie: if I were to identify myself as a 90-year-old Azerbaijani woman or a Jedi knight, I would not be telling the truth).

    Take the case of the Very Reverend Dr Peter Scrimshire Wood, late of Middleton in the English county of Norfolk. Wood was responsible for listing the job titles of his parishioners. In 1819, he described one of them as a “chopper of chips”, another as a “lamb gelder”, and a third as a “good workman”. He was back a year later with “cut throat of pigs”, “farmer and fortune hunter” and “cabbage gelder”. More are listed here, along with other details of the census research done by the University of Cambridge’s Peter Kitson.

    Wood is my kind of man of the cloth– someone who makes the dull exciting, the drab colorful. Just think what he’d had done with the Bible, had he ever been entrusted to translate the Good Book.  He even came up with a wildly unconventional name for his daugher, born in 1815. She was christened Amelia Congress Vienna Wood, presumably after the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna, which redrew the boundaries of Europe. Kitson, incidentally,  thinks that a “cabbage gelder” probably plied his trade as a market gardener or a greengrocer.

    For more than 200 years, the Pentagon has been trying to gets its personnel to learn the languages spoken by friends and foes alike. For most that time, it’s been an uphill struggle, complicated by changes in geo-politics and exactly which languages are considered “critical”. During World War Two,  GIs were given foreign language phrase books with pronunciation transcriptions of key phrases.  So you might find yourself in the company of, say, a Portuguese fisherman. You might wish to ask him: “Where have the anti-submarine nets been placed?” Here’s how you should do it, according to the Portuguese phrasebook:  “On-deh seh lan-sah-rahn uhs reh-dehs ahn-tee-soob-mah-ree-nahs?” Could be a long conversation.

    After the war, many new language programs were established, taught primarily at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. There are some magnificent archival films made by the Pentagon about this.   Check out two of them here.

    More on this subject — and the future of language-learning in the military — next week.

    After Alex Gallafent’s report on the languages at the Pentagon aired on The Big Show,  Stephen Payne, who goes by the title of Command Historian at the Defense Language Institute, sent us this note: “I misspoke. We taught Pashto during the 1980s and stopped teaching it when the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989. We started teaching Pashto again after the September 11, 2001 attacks.”  In the report, Payne had said that it was Persian/Farsi, not Pashto, that had been suspended. In fact, Persian has been taught continuously for decades.

    Also in the pod this week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is not amused at a Colombian telenovela which has named a badly-behaved dog after him.  And the word “princess” gets a workout, and not all for the good.

    Listen via iTunes or here.


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    A language speed-dater gets serious, and a cross-dressing, cross-linguistic singer

    A language-learning marathon is over, as the author of a blog called 37 Languages decides which language to learn for real. The first time I talked to Keith Brooks he’d speed-dated 13 languages: he read up on each one,  learned a few phrases, and posted a summary and a points-based evaluation on his blog. Of the original 37, six got a call back: Swedish, Albanian, Turkish, Norwegian, Portuguese and Croatian. On these second dates, Keith tried to immerse himself in the language for at least a week, again documenting his observations online.   Now, he’s chosen the language we wants to live with. I won’t spoil the surprise. It’s in the podcast, and by the time you read this, it may be on the 37 Languages site.

    Next up is the story of a new film that documents a year in the life of an elementary school in Turkey. The kids speak only Kurdish, their teacher only Turkish. After a year, the teacher can speak three words of Kurdish. This is set against a backdrop of official supression of the Kurdish language, that the Turkish government is only now addressing. It has recently relaxed regulations so that it’s now possible to broadcast and publish in Kurdish. There’s huge opposition in Turkey to even these changes.

    Finally, we profile one of Ukraine’s most beloved performers: the cross-dressing Verka Serduchka. Serduchka is the alter ego of Andriy Danylko. Serduchka is a bossy, Soviet-era train conductor turned trashy singer.  She represented Ukraine at the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest, and ended up in second place.  Danylko uses Serduchka to satirize Ukrainian life– and especially Ukranian-Russian relations. As part of that Serduchka uses a dialect called Surzhyk that had been viewed as a uneducated hybrid of Russian and Ukraine. But Serduchka has re-popularized Surzhyk, so that young Ukrainians now use it in a knowing, ironic way.  To get a sense of Serduchka talking, singing and dancing with her creator Andriy Danylko, check out this video.



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    Russia’s national lyricist, Canada’s language laws, and the rehabilitation of a code-breaker

    MikhalkovThis week, a look back at the career of the late Sergei Mikhalkov, who has died aged 96.  During World War Two, Mikhalkov wrote the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem.  After Stalin died, he rewrote the lyrics, expunging all mention of  Stalin. Decades later, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government adopted a new national anthem, but no-one particularly liked it: it just didn’t sound grand and powerful enough.  So in 2000, Vladimir Putin re-installed the old tune  by Alexander Alexandrov and had Mikhalkov re-write the lyrics yet again. This time round, instead of praising Stalin or Lenin, the anthem gave a nod to God. As someone who so readily held his finger to the political winds, it’s no surprise that Mikhalkov took part in smear campaigns against the likes Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Of course that was during Stalin’s rule, which means that not participating in such campaigns could have dire consequences.

    Next, a conversation with Keith Spicer on Canada’s 40-year-old language laws.  Spicer was the country’s first enforcer of bilingualism. Being Canadian, there wasn’t much enforcing– more like pusuading, cajoling and endless, endless debating. The way Spicer tells it, Canadians eventually embraced the law, with millions of English Canadians clamoring to learn French. He says that Quebec’s provincial language rules that outlawed signs in English and discouraged English-language expressions in French were silly but understandable, given the historical hostility to French in Anglophone Canada.

    turingFinally, this month the British government finally apologized for its treatment of Alan Turing, who helped break the Nazis’ war codes.  When Turing’s homosexuality was exposed, the British government stripped him of his security clearance and prosecuted him for gross indecency. Faced with a prison term, Turing agreed as an alternative to hormone treatment. The treatment drove him to suicide in 1954.

    Listen in iTunes or here.

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    Jokes from near and far, and how one Finnish word sparked a global movement

    The language of humor: is German humor really an oxymoron? Of course not, unless you don’t get the jokes. Germans are trying to break out of their unamusing — and unamused — past. They’re even making fun of the Nazis.  On the subject of horrifying but ridiculous regimes, are Soviet jokes still funny?  They certainly set the bar for dark. And why does the humor of say, The Office overcome language barriers while other comedies remain imprisoned within their own languages?
    Also this week, I take a look at how two video artists turned an obscure Finnish word meaning “complaints choir” into a worldwide phenomenon.  Listen to the podcast in iTunes or here.

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